Oscar Profile #459: Shirley Knight

Born July 5, 1936 in Goessel, Kansas, Shirley Knight was the daughter of an oil executive and his wife. At the age of 14, she wrote a short story which was published in a national magazine. She later attended Phillips University and Wichita State University and trained in acting with Erwin Piscator, Lee Strasberg, and Uta Hagen. She is a life member of the Actors Studio.

Knight made her TV debut in an episode of the series Playbill in 1955 and her film debut later that year in an uncredited role in Picnic. She had a starring role in the 1958 TV series, Buckskin and her first credited screen role as a nun in 1959’s Five Gates to Hell. She married first husband, actor Gene Persson, that year.

The actress started out 1960 playing Richard Burton’s granddaughter in the film version of Edna Ferber’s Ice Palace, later appearing in numerous TV shows and rounding out the year co-starring in Delbert Mann’s film of William Inge’s The Dark at the Top of the Stairs emerging as the only Oscar nominee from the film’s legendary cast.

More TV and two more films in 1962 including Richard Brooks’ film version of Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth brought Knight her second Oscar nomination. More TV work and the 1964 film Flight from Ashiya led to two films again in 1966, Sidney Lumet’s all-star cast film, The Group and Anthony Harvey’s Dutchman which was co-produced by Knight and her husband. She won the Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival for the latter.

Knight was to make just three more films in the 1960s including Richard Lester’s Peulia and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rain People. She divorced Persson and married playwright John Hopkins in 1969 with whom she would have her second child. Hopkins would also adopt her daughter with Persson, the future actress Kaitlin Hopkins.

The 1970s were not especially good to Knight in film and TV, but she did win a Tony for the 1976 play, Kennedy’s Children. The 1980s brought her the first three of her eight Emmy nominations to date including a win for Thirtysomething. On screen she had her best role in years in 1981’s underappreciated Endless Love. She closed out the decade with the first of two guest star appearances on Murder, She Wrote.

The 1990s brought Knight four more Emmy nominations including a double win in 1995 for a guest appearance on NYPD Blue and a Best Supporting Actress award for Indictment: The McMartin Trial. The decade also brought her a second Tony nomination for 1997’s The Young Man from Atlanta and a Golden Satellite nomination for that same year’s As Good as It Gets which provided her with her best screen role in years.

Widowed in 1998, Knight’s most recent awards recognition was as an Emmy nominee for her guest appearance in 2006 on Desperate Housewives.

Last seen in 2018’s Periphery, Shirley Knight remains a lovely presence on screen and off at the age 83.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

THE DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS (1960), directed by Delbert Mann

Knight was nominated for Golden Globes in two categories for her moving portrayal of the impressionable teenage daughter of traveling salesman Robert Preston and stay-at-home mom Dorothy McGuire in Mann’s production of William Inge’s 1957 play set in Kansas in the 1920s. She was the only one of the film’s extraordinary cast to receive an Oscar nomination for her performance. Preston and McGuire were ignored as were Golden Globe nominee Lee Kinsolving as Knight’s tragic prom date, Eve Arden as McGuire’s bigoted sister and Angela Lansbury as Preston’s sometimes mistress.

SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH (1962), directed by Richard Brooks

All eyes were on Paul Newman as a gigolo returning to his hometown after many years away, and his Tony nominated co-stars Geraldine Page as a faded movie star and Rip Torn as the son of the town boss reprising their Broadway roles in this somewhat toned-down version of Tennessee Williams’ last successful Broadway play. Newman, Page and new to the film version Ed Begley as the town boss and Knight as the boss’s sweet natured daughter and Newman’s former lover were nominated for Golden Globes with Page winning. Page, Begley and Knight were nominated for Oscars with Begley winning.

PETULIA (1968), directed by Richard Lester

Knight gives another outstanding performance as the recently divorced, but still needy, wife of doctor George C. Scott and mother of his children. She, Richard Chamberlain as Scott’s kooky new lover, titled character Julie Christie’s abusive husband who also turns out to be a pedophile and Joseph Cotton as Chamberlain’s well-to-do and well-connected father are all excellent in key supporting roles. The film which not only stars Scott and Christie, but the city of San Francisco which has never looked better than in any other film except perhaps for Hitchcock’s Vertigo of ten years earlier.

ENDLESS LOVE (1981), directed by Franco Zeffirelli

As with his previous films, 1968’s Romeo & Juliet and 1972’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Zeffirelli conducted highly publicized searches for unknowns to play his young leads. He chose Martin Hewitt as the 17-year-old boy madly in love with the 15-year-old sister of his best friend, James Spader, but chose the already established Brooke Shields to play the girl. Knight, in one of her best performances and Don Murray are Shields and Spader’s hippie parents while Richard Kiley and Beatrice Straight are Hewitt more conventional parents. The critics weren’t kind, but it holds up surprisingly well.

AS GOOD AS IT GETS (1997), directed by Richard L. Brooks

Jack Nicholson won his third Oscar on the eleventh of his twelve nominations for his portrayal of the misanthropic author suffering from OCD. Helen Hunt won one as well as the put-upon waitress he forms an unlikely friendship with while Greg Kinnear had to settle for a supporting actor nomination for his portrayal of Nicholson’s gay neighbor with whom he also forms an unlikely relationship. Nicholson and Hunt had previously won Golden Globes and Satellites for their performances while Kinnear and Cuba Gooding Jr. as Kinnear’s friend were nominated in support for both and Knight was nominated for a Satellite as Hunt’s sensible mother.

SHIRLEY KNIGHT AND OSCAR

  • The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1960) – nominated – Best Supporting Actress
  • Sweet Bird of Youth (1962) – nominated – Best Supporting Actress

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